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After Pelosi Breaks Dual-Bill Promise, Progressives Are Now in the Driver’s Seat

Pelosi’s plan to bring infrastructure to the House floor on its own could doom the budget, unless progressives resist.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters following the House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has broken her word and reversed herself with the kind of rank shamelessness that Mitch McConnell would admire, and there will be hell to pay for it one way or another.

On Monday night before a private gathering of the Democratic caucus, Speaker Pelosi announced that she will no longer support the policy she had promised to back since June — to bring the infrastructure bill and reconciliation bill to a simultaneous vote. At present, Pelosi intends to bring the infrastructure bill to the House floor on its own sometime this week, an act that will all but doom the larger and more substantive budget bill.

“I told all of you that we wouldn’t go on to the BIF (Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, i.e. the infrastructure bill) until we had the reconciliation bill passed by the Senate,” Pelosi reportedly told the assemblage. “We were right on schedule to do all of that, until 10 days ago, a week ago, when I heard the news that this number had to come down. It all changed, so our approach had to change. We had to accommodate the changes that were being necessitated. And we cannot be ready to say until the Senate passed the bill we can’t do BIF.”

Pelosi’s remark about “the news that this number had to come down” refers to the $3.5 trillion price tag on the vital budget reconciliation bill, a number far lower that what Sen. Bernie Sanders initially sought but eventually agreed to accept out of a desire to get the deal done. Now, that concession is out the window, along with Pelosi’s promise not to decouple the two bills. The way this is trending, the Progressive Caucus will soon be expected to cast votes and hold meetings out in the rain. “Our approach had to change,” Pelosi will explain. Of course.

What is the reason “this number had to come down”? Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, along with a small clutch of conservative House Democrats who are deep in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry, are opposed to the budget bill’s reforms of Medicare and prescription drug pricing. Manchin, himself a polluter baron whose fortunes drizzle coal soot, cannot abide the climate-rescuing elements of the bill because they dent his own personal bottom line. None of them favor funding these priorities by taxing rich people and corporations fairly.

“We obviously didn’t envision having Republicans as part of our party,” zinged Progressive Caucus Rep. Ilhan Omar after the meeting concluded. In this, she was referring to the huge national, bipartisan popularity the policies contained within these bills enjoy among the voters. Specifically, Omar was speaking to how Republicans have a habit of voting against policies their own constituents support. Manchin — a Democrat if you squint at the label — is swimming hard against the vast popular support these bills have in his own state.

Omar was one of three Democratic House representatives — along with Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal and Katie Porter — who signed her name to a Monday editorial promising to vote down the infrastructure bill if it is decoupled from the budget bill. On Tuesday morning, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likewise announced her intention to vote against a decoupled infrastructure bill.

This is not simple intransigence on the part of the Progressive Caucus. The so-called “moderate” conservative Democrats in Congress have already whittled away at the most important elements of the infrastructure bill, while leaving billions in fossil fuel subsidies intact, making it more palatable to the lobbyists and corporate paymasters they serve. They want to pass it so they can return to their districts and crow about bipartisanship. Those same lobbyists and paymasters despise the budget bill, however, and so those same “moderates” are almost certain to kill it if it does not come hand-in-hand with the infrastructure bill.

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced her intention that the House vote this week on a transformative economic package and a major investment in infrastructure,” wrote Jayapal, Omar and Porter on Monday. “Congress now faces a choice: advance the entirety of an agenda that gets American families the help they need, or deliver only a fraction of it. That’s why we, as leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, remain committed to voting for the infrastructure bill only after the Build Back Better Act is passed.”

As it stands, the lure Pelosi is using to bring the Progressive Caucus on board with the infrastructure vote amounts to, “Trust me and Joe Manchin.” Leave aside the glaring fact that Pelosi has nuked her own good word by reversing herself on these bills. Pelosi wants to make the progressives believe that if they support a stand-alone infrastructure bill, Manchin and his cohort won’t gut or entirely destroy the budget bill. This is a hollow promise Pelosi is in no position to make or keep — Manchin is enjoying his role as the power broker who won’t be pinned down, and won’t even provide a price tag he can accept — and the progressives know it.

“It can’t be a pinkie promise,” Jayapal told MSNBC on Monday night. “It’s got to be be an actual bill that is written, the legislative text is written, the numbers are agreed to, everything is agreed to in order for us to be able to vote for the bipartisan bill.” Moments later, Omar backed her up with three tweeted words: “We aren’t bluffing.”

It all gets very interesting from here.

Pelosi has a three-vote margin of error on the infrastructure vote. Jayapal, Omar, Porter and Ocasio-Cortez are already four “no” votes. Jayapal suggested last week that as much as half of the 96-person Progressive Caucus was also prepared to vote the bill down. The Monday night meeting featured a welter of “moderate” Democrats bemoaning their fate as they attempted to shift blame for this debacle onto the progressives. Expect more of the same this week as Pelosi labors to bulldoze a path to victory.

If the margin is close as the vote looms, it is entirely possible we could see Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, going hat in hand to House Republicans asking them to support the infrastructure bill in numbers large enough to overwhelm the progressives’ objections. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already advised his caucus to vote against it, and they will be in a position to squeeze Pelosi if it comes to that. Such a turn of events would be a cataclysmic humiliation for the Speaker.

The September 27 “deadline” that Pelosi set was one of several glaring missteps made throughout this process, culminating with her surrender to the Manchin crew and her broken promise to keep these two bills together. Even if she somehow brings this mess to the other shore, there isn’t a Democrat — and especially a progressive — in the building who will be interested in taking her at her word ever again. That bridge burned down last night, and there’s nothing left but stumps and ashes.

If the Progressive Caucus holds the line and votes down a stand-alone infrastructure bill — assuming they get the chance and Pelosi actually brings it for a vote — that bill can be recoupled with the budget bill once the latter emerges from the drafting process. Pelosi can keep her promise in this event and bring both up for a vote simultaneously, as she said she would three months ago.

The alternative is a defeated infrastructure bill, an almost certainly doomed budget bill, and a Democratic Party done in more than a year before the midterm elections by its own flabbergasting incompetence… and the “moderate” conservative Democrats, along with the speaker, will only have themselves to blame.

Progressives have often wondered what it would be like if the politicians they agreed with most — like Jayapal, Omar, Porter and Ocasio-Cortez — were actually in the driver’s seat. At the moment, for the moment, that is exactly the case. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Congressional Progressive Caucus tweeted just before 2:00 pm, “We just wrapped a meeting of our 96-member Caucus, and we are clear: our position on infrastructure and Build Back Better remains unchanged. We will not leave anyone behind.”

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